Sunday, February 25, 2007

Le Temps du Crunch

I have not one but two conference deadlines looming at the end of the week, and I'm in full-throttle writing mode. But since I'm officially addicted to the blogosphere, I expect I'll pop up to occasionally post some links in the comments during the week. You're welcome to do the same, and please feel free to chat here about whatever strikes your fancy. I'll be back with a post next week. Keep warm, peoples. Ciao.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cahiers du Cinema

There’s a terrific essay by Emilie Bickerton on Cahiers du Cinema—the best-known film magazine in the world—in a recent issue of the New Left Review. At 30 pages, it’s a lengthy and informative piece, and is readable on-line, but for a steep fee. So I thought I’d try to summarize it here and include a few brief passages I found especially interesting. I’m often paraphrasing Bickerton below, and all unattributed quotations refer to her words.

* * *

A few basic facts. Co-founded by Andre Bazin, Cahiers du Cinema first appeared in 1951. Quickly, it began featuring several writers who would, a few years later, be responsible for the birth of the French New Wave: François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. (A piece of trivia I never knew: Maurice Scherer changed his name to Eric Rohmer as an homage to Erich von Stroheim and Sax Rohmer, the creator of Fu Manchu.) From the beginning, these writers were (1) all united by an ardent, passionate cinephilia; and (2) intent on taking aim at the kind of polished and 'respectable' French cinema that was in favor at the time ("the Tradition of Quality").

The 1950’s. For years, every issue of the magazine sported a yellow cover with a single black-and-white still from the film most admired in the issue. Typically, the writer who was most enthusiastic about a film would be assigned the task of writing about it. The manifesto in the first issue decried “the malevolent neutralism that would tolerate a mediocre cinema, a prudential criticism and a stupefied public”; films championed in that issue included Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan and Edward Dmytryk’s Give Us This Day.

The appearance, like a gunshot, of Truffaut’s famous and notorious article “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema” (1954) coalesced the polemical charge of the magazine:

“[That essay] formulated the politique des auteurs into an axiomatic programme. Unlike a mere director, an auteur was a film-maker with a vision of the world that was made manifest through his mise-en-scène: it was not the particular subject but the way the author chose to treat it that was important; in the hands of a master, the flimsiest detective story could become a great work. Viewing therefore involved not a concentration on the content but on this cinematic staging, which was where the auteur’s ‘griffe’, or mark, could be grasped. Even—perhaps especially—the worst films of an auteur were to be appreciated in this fashion, in contrast to an oeuvre-by-oeuvre analysis. As Doniol-Valcroze would later put it, with Truffaut’s article, ‘something bound us together. From then on it was known that we were for Renoir, Rossellini, Hitchcock . . . and against X, Y and Z.’”

The Cahiers writers of this period are occasionally misunderstood as being monolithically united with a common, homogeneous sensibility. In fact, they were a markedly diverse bunch:

“Early contributions on Nicholas Ray bring out the distinctiveness of each critic. Rivette addressed his readers with a set of elegant imperatives: this must be loved, that must be recognized—a style of criticism always conscious of the spectator he had to convince. For Godard, with characteristically infectious grandeur, ‘Bitter Victory, like the sun, makes you close your eyes. Truth is blinding.’ Truffaut was aggressive, prescriptive and darkly comical […] Rohmer was always more sober, though no less enraptured. ‘May I be forgiven my vice’, he asked readers, ‘of evoking the memory of the ancient Greeks’ to read Rebel Without A Cause as a ‘drama in five acts’. The contrast was instructive: Godard and Rivette celebrated the unprecedented in Ray; Rohmer drew out the timeless issues of morality and tragedy.”

Cahiers was not without its blind spots. It largely bypassed Third World and avant-garde cinemas for a long time; and often paid scant attention to animation, fantasy and comedies. More importantly, it was relatively apolitical, ignoring both Indo-China and the Algerian war. This was in contrast to Positif, its frequent rival, which was openly political, anti-colonial, and surrealist-influenced. Positif was founded in 1952, a year after Cahiers, and in comparison, featured less Hollywood and more Latin American and Third World cinema, and was also less auteur- and more genre-sympathetic than Cahiers.

* * *

The 1960’s. Just 40 years old, Bazin died from cancer in 1958. Rohmer succeeded him as editor. An internal revolt led by Rivette a few years later aimed to move the journal in a new direction, freeing it from its pure devotion to cinephilia, or at least connecting it to wider intellectual trends and movements. The clash came to a head over one particular issue (# 144) which both opposing factions worked on; Rohmer’s was the one that got published. But it was his last as editor; Rivette took over with the next issue, in 1963, and called for a more serious consideration of the social context of cinema. He said:

“Such are the perils of the ‘pure gaze’ attitude that leads one to complete submission before a film . . . like cows in a field transfixed by the sight of trains passing by, but with little hope of ever understanding what makes them move.”

Under Rivette and following him, Cahiers opened itself up to the broad intellectual currents of its time: anthropology (Lévi-Strauss); literary theory (Barthes); psychoanalysis (Lacan); ideology (Althusser), and structuralism. Among the most influential writers at Cahiers over the next several years were two former medical students from Algeria, Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni. Design changes announced the new track of the journal; the famous yellow (perhaps now a symbol of golden-ageism) was replaced by a different color each month. The new editorial team became more diverse and inter-disciplinary. Rivette left the editorship in 1965 to make The Nun; Comolli and Narboni took over.

* * *

The 1970’s. A time of serious political events: the struggles in Vietnam and Indo-China, the Cultural Revolution in China, and the events of May 1968. The direction at Cahiers shifted from structuralist preoccupations to a vocal political militancy.

“As a cinema magazine, ‘operating in a situation in which the majority of films are produced within the capitalist system and its dominant ideology’, the first question was to ask which films served simply to transmit that ideology and which attempted to intercept it, to reveal its mechanisms. They discerned seven categories altogether. The first and largest, whether ‘commercial’ or ‘art-house’, ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’, was of films ‘imbued through and through with with the dominant ideology’, and gave no indication that their makers were even aware of the fact. In form, they ‘totally accept the established system of depicting reality: “bourgeois realism” . . . Nothing in these films jars against the ideology’. A second category—Straub’s Not Reconciled and Rocha’s Terra em Transe were cited—directly challenged the ideological system both through form and subject matter; or category three, did so indirectly (Bergman’s Persona). Fourth, with Costa-Gavras singled out for criticism, were apparently political films that were in fact unremittingly ideological. Fifth, apparently ideological films (Ford, Dreyer, Rossellini) which in fact reveal the ideology to be cracking under its internal tensions. Good (formally reflective) and bad (pseudo-realist) forms of grass-roots cinema direct made up categories six and seven.”

This was a time of dense Cahiers texts, often with a strong Lacanian-Althusserian influence. Essays—famous examples include those on Young Mr. Lincoln and Morocco—were longer and thicker than ever before. The influence spread to Britain: Screen was formed using Cahiers as a model. A strong turn toward Maoism followed, and for that and other reasons, several long-time writers left the magazine (Truffaut, Doniol-Valcroze, Kast, Eisenschitz, Sylvie Pierre). Publication and sales sank to an all-time low.

Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana took over the reins in 1974. A reorientation followed, Daney advocating a heterogeneity and producing several key texts during the next few years. Without abandoning its political commitment, Cahiers attempted to get back in touch with its cinephilic roots while maintaining connections to the intellectual culture of the time. (Foucault, Deleuze, and Rancière all appeared in the magazine during this time.) However, a slow move toward the mainstream began in the late 70’s as a response to large-scale corporatization of the media which, Cahiers decided, needed to be addressed and taken up seriously in the magazine.

* * *

The 1980’s to the present. Hollywood films (E.T., Apocalypse Now, The Shining) now began to get wide coverage as Cahiers moved toward populism, consciously seeking to expand its reader base. Design changes introduced full-color and more white space for easy readability. Daney had quit by this time (“Toubiana has a very precise idea of what he wants to do with the journal: to relocate it at the cinematic centre. My idea is less clearly defined, more vagabond—but his has a future.”) The Le Monde group purchased Cahiers in the late 90's.

Bickerton adds:

“Cinema has already entered its second century. Yet in order to flourish, it requires a broader critical culture around it, arguing, pushing, demanding more. The pockets of interest—an experimental initiative here, innovative festival there—all too often occur in isolation. Without a responsive audience around it, any film can exist only in the temporality of its own screening. What sustained Cahiers was its use of writing (with pen and camera) and later theory, as the means to grasp the unarticulated potentials and achievements of film. These tools remain essential for film criticism today. Recalling Bazin, Daney wrote, ‘Cinephilia was not just a relation to cinema, it was a relation to the world through cinema.’”

[…] “Cahiers still appears each month, now in a glossy magazine format indistinguishable from the ruck of mainstream cinema guides. Festival films, commercial offerings, educational angles, archives: the well-intentioned coverage is wider than ever, the style mannered, if curiously affectless; the overall effect—so much to choose from, so little at stake—has the mind-numbing quality of an upmarket consumer report. For thirty years, the journal’s interventions had helped shape the way cinema has been understood and experienced, popularly and theoretically. Cahiers both engaged and provoked film-makers into action, making it for a long time, to paraphrase Alexandre Astruc, the real stylo-caméra. Today it would seem little more stimulating than the inflight magazine on the plane to the next film festival. How did it come to this?”

* * *

More Emilie Bickerton articles: On Jafar Panahi at Vertigo; literary critic James Wood at Culture Wars; Martha Fiennes' Chromophobia at Spiked.

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Your take on Bickerton's account of Cahiers du Cinema? And/or any Cahiers-related reflections you may have? Your thoughts are most welcome. [Time flies: this is post #250 at the blog...]

Monday, February 12, 2007

On Film Criticism

There is a rich and rousing conversation with Adrian Martin in the new issue of the Italian journal Cinemascope. Conducted by the Spanish film magazine Miradas de Cine, the interview is wide-ranging and thought-provoking in a myriad ways. I thought I’d excerpt a few parts, but I would highly recommend reading the whole thing. It thoughtfully (and inspiringly!) takes up many of the topics we’ve been dialoguing about in the film blogosphere recently, most notably in Andy Horbal’s Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon.

There is much to savor, think about and discuss in the piece and in the entire issue, which is on the subject of “Responsibility and Film Criticism.” So, I invite you to chime in with your thoughts: this one’s tailor-made for conversation!

* * *

Q: “Some film critics deal with new kinds of cinema and new forms of expression in film. Are we forgetting about older cinema (silent films, for instance)? Isn't it necessary to rediscover filmmakers from the past?”

Adrian M.: “[…] I completely agree with your proposition about ‘old’ films and ‘past’ filmmakers. In fact, I would go further: no film is truly old, or in the past! Every cinephile should have the experience of watching a silent film – I had this experience watching some Jean Epstein films recently – and suddenly feeling confronted with something that is still, today, newer and more modern than we ourselves are as spectators. There is a good, simple reason for this: the cinema is always a laboratory, a field of experimentation: experimentation with image, sound, performance, gesture, light, colour, music, rhythm, storytelling, etc. No experiment is ever exhausted, and no aesthetic or cultural problem is solved for all time. So, when we return to old films, we therefore see that they are completely contemporary to us and our concerns, if we are open to the traces of experimentation in them – there are always new ideas in old films. I do not regard the ‘cinema of the past’ as something neat, clean, classical, canonical. Cinema is always ‘at the crossroads’, at every moment of its existence, and so are we. That is why the art of programming is important: placing the present and past cinema always into a fruitful encounter – or an Eisensteinian dialectical clash.”

* * *

Q: “Is it possible to establish any kind of objective knowledge about these crossroads where cinema always is at? Can we get further than just a discussion of personal tastes and preferences?”

AM: “Well, we must get further than just ‘personal tastes and preferences’! I deeply believe that taste is a kind of prison for oneself […] Critics should feel free to bring in their own emotional reactions to films – it is hard to keep them out of writing – but the phenomenon known as the ‘gut feeling’ or gut reaction can become a terrible end in itself: ‘this film makes me angry or it makes me happy, so it's a rotten film or a great film, and I’m not going to discuss it any further.’ The important thing is always argument, analysis, logic. I have an irrational side (critics need it), but my rational side believes in logical demonstration: if you can prove to me that what are saying about a film makes internal sense, if you can marshal the evidence from the film itself to back up what you say, then I too can be persuaded to disregard my own first gut reaction and explore that film again in a new, more open way.”

* * *

Q: “You say that writing on films could be a way of ‘understanding the way the world works and how we work within it’. Do you think critics should include their own political ideas when writing on films?”

AM: “The first way I can answer your question is to declare this: that, no matter what critics think they are saying or not saying in their writing, they are betraying themselves, giving away their deepest selves, their full system of beliefs and values, at every single moment. It is important for every critic to come to a realisation of this truth. What you think about music and art, what you think about sex, what you think about family and friendship, what you think about politics and history: it’s all there, plainly there, for everyone to read in what you write, in your slightest expression, your smallest turn of phrase. Any critic’s biases are always going to become apparent – so it is better to master those biases, use them, include them, be up front about them. Or else, those biases will rule you, like nasty unconscious impulses, and you will end up looking like someone who has a sinister agenda, an axe to grind.”

* * *

“[W]hat did I really find in Deleuze, beyond the substance of certain ideas, certain models? This goes to the very heart of the investigation into criticism that you are making at Miradas. There is something in criticism I value perhaps above everything else: it is what I can call the ‘personal voice’. I do not mean the autobiographical or confessional content of writing, which often bores and irritates me – and, in fact, most writers ‘in person’ are absolutely nothing like what you imagine them to be from their writing! No, I mean the way in which an individual writer can communicate and draw you into his or her own ‘system’, their way of seeing, feeling and processing films, as well as the world. In this sense, no critic is either right or wrong in their judgements; they can only succeed (or fail) to be convincing or persuasive, to let you experience a new or specific way of looking and thinking. Writing is rhetorical, in this sense, but it is also creative, imaginative, poetic: this is the point where criticism approaches art (although it never supplants art!), and all the best critics (like Jonathan Rosenbaum, Nicole Brenez, Judith Williamson or Roger Tailleur) reach it. The Surrealists (who have been a big influence on me) always upheld this principle of the ‘personal voice’ above all else, and I find a more recent statement of this principle from Jean Baudrillard in The Perfect Crime (1995): “As for ideas, everyone has them. What counts is the poetic singularity of the analysis. That alone can justify writing, not the wretched critical objectivity of ideas. There will never be any resolving the contradictoriness of ideas, except in the energy and felicity of language.””

* * *

“The adventure of the new, that’s finally what it’s all about: launching experiments that will liberate some creative and social energy in the collective act and art of film criticism. So I don’t think any of us needs to define a singular, revolutionary ‘way to go’ to regenerate criticism. The revolution starts wherever you are, with whatever tools you have to hand – Deleuze can teach you that! Likewise, I do not think we should try to collectively fix on a ‘single purpose’ for criticism. Criticism always has many purposes, and many potentialities at once; it’s not a ‘field’ you can cohere and strategically organise across the board, like a business plan, a military operation, an academic conference or a political party. What a grotesque delusion that would be, in any event! When I speak of purposes and potentialities, I mean everything from the most humble aim – to simply give a lucid, respectful account of a film – to the most elevated and crazy: to think of film writing as a means of political intervention, or as a form of concrete poetry. Obviously, criticism can take an infinite number of forms: it can be soliloquy, meditation, dialogue, polemical rant, patient description, a work of fiction, a text running ‘parallel’ to a film, a sociological or philosophical commentary, a cryptic piece of symbolist literature, or a political treatise. All forms should be encouraged – I defend them all! And they should be constantly intermixed into every kind of hybrid mode. It is when we narrow down to only a few modes of singular discourse that stagnation and repetition set in, and creativity withers. The challenge is always to keep your own impulse, your own excitement – or the excitement of the group you are part of – alive and productive for as long you can, and to keep switching tracks so that your idealism can be constantly reborn in new ways.”

* * *

“Abel Ferrara’s Mary (like also Gus Van Sant’s Elephant) happens to be a remarkable essay about telephones in modern life – mobile phones, in particular. All the actions, the character interrelations, the montage dynamics, the junctions and disjunctions of image and sound, are caught and dramatised in the multiple phone calls that occur in the movie, bridging different countries, different experiences, different media. Ferrara deliberately restricts his frame of reference: none of his characters use computers or send emails, for instance. Maybe that will be the subject or substance of his next film! But by ‘unrealistically’ isolating this one element of modern experience in Mary, he really makes us see, experience and understand it. And he connects it to very large issues: faith, love, revolt. This working from the particular detail to the general theme is part of what the influential critic Manny Farber meant by his concept of ‘termite art’. Films are involved in making termite art in this way – and so are film critics.”

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There’s plenty more reading where that came from, so bon appetit. And feel free to share your thoughts on any of it....

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Nicole Brenez/Ten Levels

Reno (Abel Ferrara) sees an ad for a $19.95 Porto-Pak on TV in The Driller Killer (1979)

In case you cinephiles out there haven't picked up Nicole Brenez's new book on Ferrara yet, let me post, as a little nudge, an excerpt from its first few pages:

“Ferrara has often expressed his admiration for the exacting artistry of John Cassavetes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Several principles unite the respective works of these four filmmakers. First, a practical principle: the constitution of a variable but faithful group of collaborators […] Second, a stylistic principle: the exclusive privilege accorded by these filmmakers to the description of human behavior via gestural, actoral, and emotional invention. And a third, a fundamental theoretical principle: these filmmakers explicitly conceive of their work as a vast enterprise of political critique. This conception is most evident in the cases of Pasolini and Fassbinder.

“For Fassbinder, each film constitutes a polemical treatise on Germany, past and present. His work never ceases to investigate five points: 1) the remnants of Nazism in contemporary Germany; 2) the moral nullity of liberal democracy; 3) the historical hypothesis that capitalism can accommodate itself to any political regime whatsoever, whether democratic or fascist; and, as a corollary to that, 4) Nazism as the ideal regime for capitalism, since it reduces workers to a “workforce” that does not need to be supported, only exhausted to the point of death and then instantly replaced (I. G. Farben paid Auschwitz prisoners); and 5) the servile ideological role of the culture industry.

“Pasolini’s work is organized on the basis of a central critical point: acculturation. This engenders a melancholic hypothesis concerning the disappearance of certain archaic forms of Italian civilization. While Fassbinder’s work (like Ferarra’s) declares itself to be entirely negative and purely polemical (in the great tradition of the Frankfurt School), Pasolini’s work presents at once a negative side (the angry description of the forms of human nature’s destruction) and an affirmative side (an affirmation of the survival or the force of the good and the beautiful, which is for him mythological barbarity; elaborated in Medea, 1970; The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964; and Love Meetings, 1965). Both filmmakers are bent on preserving particular forms of beauty: neoclassical beauty, like the angel in Pasolini’s Theorem (1968) or the gay boys in Fassbinder; and subproletarian beauty, like the ragazzi in Pasolini or the way Fassbinder films his own body (in Fox and His Friends [1974], for instance). This is a dimension completely missing from Ferrara’s work; the beautiful appears nowhere in his representations. The beautiful and the good are either resolutely absent (as in Body Snatchers), rendered as repulsive ( the “healthy” character in The Blackout, Susan [Claudia Schiffer]), profaned (the nun [Frankie Thorn] in Bad Lieutenant), or treated as a catastrophic, unliveable eruption leading to death (the crisis of L. T. [Harvey Keitel] at the moment of his redemption) or to self-annihilation (the ambiguous resurrection of Kathy [Lili Taylor] at the end of The Addiction). In Ferrara, the journey of goodness is rendered as endless suffering. At the antipodes to the sporadic Hellenism that appears in Fassbinder or Pasolini, the only “beauties” in Ferrara are criminal, Baudelairean, infernal bodies.”

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A clutch of Brenez links here: an introduction to her writing by Adrian Martin at Screening The Past; Body Snatchers; De Palma's Mission: Impossible; "Peter Whitehead: The Exigency of Joy"; "À propos de Nice and the Extremely Necessary, Permanent Invention of the Cinematic Pamphlet"; a tribute to Brakhage (with Martin); "Jeune, dure et pure! A history of avant-garde and experimental film in France"; "The ultimate journey: remarks on contemporary theory"; and a few brief reviews she wrote on the Amazon site. On the basis of these, I sent away for a film I had never heard of, Doctor Chance.

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Whitney Balliett, one of the great jazz critics, has died. Here are tributes by Terry Teachout and Doug Ramsey. Also, some Balliett: an obituary of Thelonious Monk; and a short piece on Sonny Rollins.

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It bugs me to this day that sometimes jazz musicians will play the “head” (the melody statement) perfunctorily, ripping through it, sometimes even abandoning it before arriving at the end of the head section, in order to get to the solo in a hurry. (FYI: an older post about jazz form and structure.) My first musical love was pop, in which stating the melody with some care and attention was always important. And let’s remember: Jazz is not only improvisation; it’s a productive dialectic between improvisation and pre-composition….

Anyway, in my early days of learning to play the piano, when I was too intimidated to improvise, and was having enough trouble playing the melody with faithfulness and care, I encountered this excerpt from a Whitney Balliett piece, and simple though it was, it was a little revelation. And a practical one that could be applied. It remains one of the best and truest things I’ve ever read about jazz. Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, quoted by Balliett in American Musicians: 56 Portraits In Jazz:

“I think of improvisation as coming in ten levels, each one more intense than the one before. On the first level, you play the melody, and you should sound as if you were playing it for the very first time. Freshly. If it doesn’t sound that way, you’re not ready to go to the second level. Playing the melody properly gives you the license to vary it, to embellish it, which is what you do on the second level. The melody is still foremost, but you add little things to it on the third level. Variation—displacing certain notes in the melody—comes in around the fourth level, and by the time you get to five, six, and seven you are more than halfway to creating a new song. Eight, nine, and ten are just that—the creation of wholly new melodies. Moving through these ten levels can take place during a set or over the course of an evening. Sometimes, though, you never get past three or four or five, but that’s O.K., because no one level is more important than any other.”